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Meet the youngsters from smaller cities in India who are making AR lenses for the world

They are creative, technically equipped, engaged with the product and willing to experiment with offbeat ideas. Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram are their stage, as they tread a previously unused path

March 12, 2021 / 04:00 PM IST

A face painted in green, blue and orange stares back at you from a Snapchat camera, like a collage representing the myriad colours of Holi, celebrated with gusto in India, particularly its North.

At another time, one can even grow cat or rabbit ears and whiskers with large eyes. Why, you can even get the colour of the iris changed to blue or golden. A piece of psychedelic art?

Nope. These are, in lens creation parlance, filters (static overlays over the camera) or lenses. In other words, augmented reality (AR) animations with the use of 3D modeling, which can be created using tools offered by Snapchat’s Lens Studio or Facebook and Instagram’s Spark AR Studio.

That itself would be creative hype, but the joy is magnified in the knowledge that many of these lenses are being created by college going kids from India’s rural regions and are accessed by people across the world.

Moneycontrol spoke to four such lens creators, who in addition to being popular campus figures, are also raking in the moolah by working with firms in India and overseas.


Take for instance 20-year-old Thakur Vivek Singh, an official lens creator for Snapchat. A native of Madhya Pradesh, he is currently pursuing his final year microbiology in Surat, Gujarat. An avid interest in photography led him to explore lens creation as a hobby in early 2020.

While he started with Instagram’s Spark AR studio, he got into Snapchat at his friends’ insistence, who were active on the platform. “I was there mostly to have fun and make filters for my friends, who enjoyed them,” he says. If, along with it came campus popularity, so much the better.

One of his lenses, Smoke Flare VR, on Snapchat went viral with 30.5 billion views. “After that I got an email from the Snap team informing me that I had become a Snap star and an official lens creator. I asked them what that was,” he quipped.

Snap Inc, parent company of Snapchat, has just eight official lens creators in India and South Asian region and Singh is one of them.

The badge of an official lens creator does attract brands. For instance over the last few months, Singh was commissioned by a few Indian firms to make AR lenses as part of a brand marketing campaign. Last month, an Indian company licensed five of Singh’s lenses by paying a premium

“I am earning enough pocket money through lens making,” Singh said, laughing, without disclosing the amount.

However, freelance lens creators estimate that one can command anywhere between $500-1000 per lens, and depending on the complexity, it can go as high as $2000-3000 per lens.

In the case of Gujarat native Neel Joshi, a final year student in medicine, his interest in coding made him explore AR lens creation back in 2018. At that time, Joshi recounted, there was hardly anyone practicing this art.

Being a medicine student, he has taught himself programming languages such as Javascript, familiarizing himself with usage of machine learning to create complex lenses.

That was beginning to pay dividends. As his lenses became popular, Joshi was able to work with some of the popular brands on their marketing campaigns. This includes an Indian edtech firm, an Indian Super League team and entertainment studios that commission him to make lenses.

Joshi, 22, has also worked with a production house overseas for a short film. “They did not even spend on lighting and other backdrops. I had them prepared as lenses and shot using the camera Lens Studio supports,” he explained.

Over the last one year Joshi has earned Rs 2.5 lakh in major projects, while working merely on weekends. This does not include projects he has worked for smaller brands, for which he said, pricing is flexible based on their needs.

“So, I am a medical student during the week and part time lens creator over the weekend,” says Joshi, who is preparing for his final year exams that started on March 1. While he is not one of the official lens creators, Joshi has a public profile on Snapchat. He has built his network and can strike out on his own, if he so desires.


If Singh and Joshi were able to establish themselves as freelancers, 22-year-old Kavin Kumar landed a job as a lens creator in the Bengaluru-based firm Alive Now, an official lens creation partner for Snap, Facebook and Instagram.

Kumar is one of the eight official lens creators. “For me it was started as a hobby in 2018,” stated Kumar, a native of Erode, Tamil Nadu, and an applied science graduate.

Over the last few years, he has been building up his skills making complex lenses that would need knowledge of coding such as JavaScript or React.js, and also 3D modeling.

While Kumar did not share his career plans or how much one can earn as a lens creator at Alive Now, another 23-year-old freelance artist - let us call him Muthu - in Tamil Nadu, revealed certain details on condition of anonymity.

Muthu used to be a full-time employee before he decided to freelance.

“I used to earn Rs 30,000 per month working for the agency after two years of experience,” he said, adding, “but I know I can earn more being a freelancer.”

At $500-$1000 per lens, or more with increasing complexity, one can earn Rs 50,000 by making a single lens. “With 2-3 lenses per month, I would be set,” he said enthusiastically, clearly excited at his career prospects.

Muthu spent the bulk of his time last year sharpening technical skills and building his network with marketing agencies.

For Harshit Parwal, a final year engineering major in Jaipur, who loves sketching, lens creation was attractive from an art point of view. “I came across Lensathon last year and participated in it in May 2020,” he said. Lensathon is an online hackathon launched by Snapchat for budding lens creators in partnership with Skillenza.

“One of the lenses I created for mask detection took me 1.5 months,” Parwal said, but he decided to challenge himself with this lens by incorporating machine learning. This got over 1 million views.

For Parwal, 22, it is unlikely to become anything more than a hobby. “I am in this for fun,” says the Jaipur-based engineer-to-be, before he joins an IT firm. He has also completed the second Lensathon challenge themed around Holi.

Why are kids getting into AR lens creation in droves?

According to Snehal Dhurve, CEO and Co-founder, Superfan Studio, an official lens creation partner for Facebook and Snap, "This was made possible purely because of democratization of AR by Instagram and Snapchat. While there are many companies working in this space, nobody made it accessible to the wider masses than these two firms."

The AR suites come with a range of tools and tutorials on how to use them, which has made creation as easy as a drag and drop. The ease of use without the need to know coding languages has become a key factor in attracting youngsters, a crucial user demographic on these platforms.


This is how easy it is to use. To start with, those interested can download Lens Studio/Spark AR suite. “You can go through the documents or like me you can just explore the tools. As long as you know the basics of photoshop or similar platforms, this will not be tough,” explains Parwal.

Pointed out Hardik Shah, Chief Strategy Officer, Superfans Studio, “There is definitely a cool factor about being a lens creator.”

“If you are creating a lens that is going to be used by, say, an actor like Prabhas (of Baahubali fame), it will make you popular on the campus,” he says.

It is not hard to imagine how. Apart from the four lens creators, six of Snapchat users Moneycontrol spoke to, were there for the array of lenses that the platforms offer.

“Lot of people get into lens creation because they want to be cool and popular on the college campus,” admitted Singh, who often gets emails and messages with others wanting to know how to become an official lens creator like him.

While the `cool’ factor among college kids is common, there are some like Kumar, and Joshi who believe that AR lenses are more than just lenses.

Where is the moolah?

Take for instance the movie promo that Joshi worked for. The entire promo was shot through the camera with AR lenses rather than investing in backdrops and lighting that is typical of movie production.

There are several more use cases emerging and the likes of Snap and Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram, are clearly interested.

This is reflected in the increased interest that digital marketing platforms are revealing for AR adoption. For instance, at Alive Now over the last 6-12 months, the number of queries for AR lenses has increased from 12-14 queries per month to 30-40, said its CEO Adhvith Dhuddu.

“Brands are thinking about AR as a part of their ad campaign,” he said. However unlike the US or European countries, India is not as big with the AR market still at a nascent stage.

Dhruve of Superfans Studio shared the comparative AR spends companies make in India and the US. While the US firms spend $40,000-$50,000 on an average, in India it is about $15,000. In addition, where close to 20-25 percent of the digital marketing spend goes to AR in the US, it is only about 5-10 percent in this country.

Superfans Studio recently shifted its base from Mumbai to the US given the business landscape AR lens creation presents in that country.


The opportunities, clearly, are abundant since the scope for lens creators extend beyond Indian boundaries - and the money, even more so.

Both Joshi and Muthu have been working with agencies overseas.

“Some brands pay as high as $10,000 per lens in the US for highly complex projects that require the use of machine learning, AI and 3D modeling,” explains Muthu

A viable career option?

If one were to compare lens creators with software engineers in IT firms, which are one of the biggest hirers of fresh engineering graduates, the latter might offer stability or better salary compared to studios.

But for those like Kumar and Joshi, who are passionate about the technology, being a lens creator is rewarding with the potential to earn more.

“So, technically yes. It (lens creation) can be a career option,” said Alive Now’s Dhuddu. But going forward the challenge is that the entry barrier is so low, anyone can get in and that will drive the pricing down for freelancers.

“Right now what you are seeing is a gold rush to get into lens creation, similar to what the 2000s were for website creation,” cautions Dhuddu. While the space might not be crowded right now, it is clearly getting there, he added.

Differentiating and the ability to market oneself would be the key. One way would be to become a part of Snapchat and Facebook’s ecosystem.

Nana Murugesan, Managing Director, International Markets, Snap Inc, said in an earlier interaction that there are over 175 official lens creators (OLCs) across 35 countries. “In India and the wider South East Asian region, there are eight OLCs,” he said.

Facebook’s Spark AR ecosystem has over four lakh creators across 190 countries. During its relaunch in October 2020, the firm said that it has 77 partners, consisting of both agencies and individual creators, who were vetted and invited into the Spark AR Partner Network for the occasion. The tech major also expanded the programme to nearly 100 creators globally, across 30 countries.


Being a part of this ecosystem opens up opportunities for creators to work with multinational brands. But it is far from easy as they have a robust vetting process. Creators are judged based on the various criteria, including their technical experience, users’ engagement with the product, and creativity before they are on-boarded.

For others, it goes without saying that the knowledge of 3D modelling, machine learning and coding languages are keys to move to the next level.

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Swathi Moorthy
first published: Mar 12, 2021 04:00 pm
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